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Picky Eating and How to Overcome It
A Q&A with Dahlia Rimmon from I'm Always in the Kitchen
I’m calling it now - mealtimes have been one of the most rewarding, yet also frustrating things I’ve experienced as a parent. There’s few things better than lovingly preparing a balanced, nutritious and tasty meal for my child and her enjoying every last bit; and conversely, there’s nothing more soul-crushing than when she eats precisely none of the exact same meal the next week.
Fussy eating is not uncommon in toddlers. A survey of 2,000 UK parents highlighted some overwhelming, but unsurprising, statistics:
86% of children under five weren’t eating their recommended five fruit and vegetables a day;
80% of children mostly ate “bland” food;
79% of parents claimed their child was “not easy” to feed; and
48% of parents surveyed claimed their children were “fussy” eaters.
And it’s not just the children that are impacted; three in ten respondents claimed they’ve been driven to tears as a result of mealtime frustration with their kids, and 27% said they’d argued with their partner as a result of their child’s diet.
But if you’re like me and you too end up pulling your hair out over mealtimes, then this week’s issue could be exactly what you’re looking for.
I got the opportunity to ask some of the big questions on fussy eating to, a pediatric registered dietitian nutritionist working with parents and families to unpick picky eating. She also writes the fantastic , a weekly newsletter covering everything you need to know about child nutrition.
Brad: Thanks for agreeing to talk to me - I’m very excited about this issue! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and where your passion for food and nutrition came from?
Dahlia: Hi! So excited to collaborate with you on this issue!
I became interested in food because I grew up in a house with a bunch of foodies! We’re all obsessed with eating food, cooking food, sharing food, shopping for food, the works! Food is always the topic of conversation.
Personally, I have always been interested in the intersection and synergistic effect of food and health so I decided to pursue a career in nutrition.
Brad: It must be so rewarding helping parents and little ones start their journeys with food - what’s your favourite part of the job?
Dahlia: It’s super rewarding! Eating and sharing food CAN and SHOULD be an enjoyable, fun experience for both parents and children.I want that for all families. I love teaching parents how to create safe eating spaces to foster happy eaters.
Brad: The first things we tried with our daughter were fruit and vegetable purées made with breast milk - strawberries and banana, broccoli, carrot - things like that. What other things might you suggest for baby’s first foods?
Dahlia: I love offering variety right away. This way they can be exposed to all the different food groups, colors, textures, and nutrients right from the start. I suggest cycling food groups each meal - veggies, proteins, fats, and fruit.
Brad: Moving to finger foods and solids was a bit of a mental leap for us - I remember being quite anxious about our baby not being able to chew food and choke if she didn’t have teeth yet. What would you say to a parent with the same worries?
Dahlia: I actually have a great issue about how to prepare for solids. I discuss the importance of enrolling in an infant CPR class and educating yourself before beginning the solids journey, especially finger foods.
As a first time parent, it's definitely nerve-racking when you see your baby gag. Babies tend to gag during the first few weeks or months of solids, as they learn how to maneuver the food in the mouth. The gag reflex is a protective mechanism to protect the airway. When babies are exposed to new foods or textures they will most likely gag.
It’s important to understand the difference between gagging and choking. Gagging is an audible reaction so you may hear coughing or gurgling sounds. Choking is a silent reaction because the airway is blocked. Baby may turn blue. This is obviously scary, which is why I recommend brushing up on infant CPR so you know what to do in the event of true choking.
It’s also important to make sure you are serving safe textures and shapes. Food should be super soft so that you can easily squish it between your fingers. Avoid choking hazard shapes - foods that are small, round, and cylindrical. Some examples are blueberries, chickpeas, and grapes. These food shapes can be modified by pureeing them or cutting them in half or quarters (lengthwise). Other choking hazards are:
Hard foods such as raw carrots or apples
Sticky foods such as peanut butter (thin it out with water)
Gummy foods such as gummy candy or bread (bread can roll up into a gummy ball in the mouth when mixed with saliva so I recommend lightly toasting the bread before serving it to a baby)
Lastly, it’s a common misconception that babies need teeth in order to eat finger foods. Babies have really strong gums that they use to mash up the food in their mouth. We use our molars to chew and those are the last teeth to come in, well after the first birthday. It’s important to note that foods should be soft so their little gums can mash up the food too!
Brad: We hit a bit of a wall with introducing new foods at around fifteen months. We went from her trying everything we made to not even liking her favourites anymore. Is this common around this age and if so, what’s the reason behind this?
Dahlia: Yes! This is totally normal! There are a few developmental reasons why kids between 1-2 years start exhibiting some picky eating behaviors:
Their appetite changes. Babies are growing at such a rapid pace from 0-12 months and they usually have big appetites to support their growing bodies. At some point around 12 months (give or take a few months), their growth slows so their appetite will reflect this change. Sometimes they will eat less, sometimes they will be choosy.
Developmentally, they are learning so much about the world and are becoming small little people! With their newfound abilities, they may become overwhelmed or frightened by new things, as the world is a lot for them to process. This phenomenon is called Neophobia. They may be scared/overwhelmed by new foods or foods they haven't seen in awhile and therefore reject them.
They are now autonomous little people! They have learned how to say ‘no’. They even know how to manipulate us. They may reject foods just because they can!
Brad: Things got a bit better as the months went on, but getting her to try new foods in particular became much more difficult. How would you advise a parent to introduce a new food to their toddler?
Dahlia: Great question! They can be so finicky! I have a few suggestions:
Play it cool. When mealtimes are tense or when they feel the pressure to eat, they feel it too. Little kids are brilliant and can sense when we are frustrated or stressed. They won’t want to try something new in an agitated environment. Play it cool. If they reject something, don’t make it a big deal. If they indeed try something new, be indifferent and try not to have a reaction.
Present food in a pressure-free way. Aim to expose food in a fun, interesting way to pique their curiosity. It can be as simple as serving foods in a different shape or offering a new utensil or plate. You can also have your kids prep the dish in the kitchen or help you cook a new recipe. If you want to be a super mom/dad you can even use the new foods to create art. The key here is to expose your kids to these foods without the pressure to eat the food. They can use their other senses to experience the food, which is a helpful segue to eventually tasting or eating the food.
It’s important to serve new/previously rejected foods alongside safe/familiar foods. If they look down at their plate and only see a new/previously rejected food, they may feel overwhelmed because it’s their only option. However, if you serve it alongside safe/familiar foods, they may feel more comfortable and are more likely to try new foods when they feel at ease. It will not be a magical switch overnight but over time, this tactic can help ease the transition.
Brad: There’s so much information out there on parenting in general nowadays, and that’s no different when it comes to kids and their food. In your experience, are there any common misconceptions about picky eating that you tend to encounter a lot with parents?
Dahlia: A common misconception in the nutrition space is a ‘one size fits all’ mentality. That one specific diet can work for everyone, for example. This is just not the case as every person and every body is so different. I think this type of black and white thinking filters into the baby feeding space as well. There isn’t just one method that works to alleviate picky eating or that will ensure your baby will eat the rainbow. Every baby has different needs and every family has different feeding goals. It’s important to recognize that nutrition and feeding behaviors is a gray area and to view it as a positive thing.
Brad: In the past whenever we’ve had a mini breakthrough with a particular food, I’ve ended up getting carried away and putting more of that food on her plate next time, only for her to reject it again. Is it possible that the amount of food on a child’s plate could overwhelm them, and if so how patient do we have to be before upping the amount of a certain food on their plate?
Dahlia: Totally. What you described can be a combination of two things:
Being overwhelmed with quantity
As I mentioned above regarding neophobia, toddlers tend to be overwhelmed. As a general rule I offer a small amount on the plate - ALWAYS. I have a refill plate on the kitchen counter when they request more of a particular item.
Many times parents are beyond elated when their toddler starts enjoying a new food, a mini breakthrough as you mentioned. Subsequently, parents will over-offer this food because they are excited about their child’s newfound love. Frequent exposure too fast can overwhelm and cause food fatigue. The child will tire quickly of the same foods offered too regularly.
Think about wooing a partner - you have to take it slow. You aren’t going to ask them to marry you on the first date. The same applies here. Give them a gradual introduction to the new food, offering it infrequently and in small quantities.
Brad: I know from that experience that I started to get anxious that she wasn’t eating much, even things I thought she’d love. How can parents identify if their child's picky eating is a temporary phase or a more serious issue?
Dahlia: Kids, especially toddlers, go through appetite ebbs and flows. Usually it’s dependent on growth patterns. When they are having a growth spurt their appetite can increase. If you suspect it’s a more serious issue it’s important to have a conversation with your pediatrician and/or registered dietitian.
Brad: Are there any particular nutrients that picky eaters are more likely to miss out on, and how can parents ensure their child gets these?
Dahlia: It depends on the severity of the pickiness. If a child refuses to eat one whole food group then there will be a big gap in nutrition. If the child rejects several, random foods the gap may be narrower.
Brad: When my wife and I were looking for advice on dealing with fussy eating, I remember reading that it was important to set the right environment for your kids to eat in. How can parents create a positive mealtime environment to encourage their child to try new foods?
Dahlia: I love this question. My top two recommendations for creating positive, safe, joyful meals are:
Eat with your kids. Create and enforce the habit. Family meals help reduce picky eating too!
No distractions. Turn off the TV. Remove your cell phone. Remove distracting toys or gadgets. We want to teach our children to be mindful eaters. We want them to enjoy the art of eating.
Brad: It’s tricky trying to balance work, life and parenting, so much so that I know I’m guilty of cutting corners with regards to my own diet just to get through the day. But when we’re around our kids, how can we try to model good eating habits for our picky eaters whenever we can?
Dahlia: First, be aware of the language you use around food and eating. Use positive language to describe food with adjectives such as: delicious, yummy, lovely.
Second, model by eating new foods around your kids! It’s important to do this in a pressure-free way. Instead of asking your child to try a new food, which can be overwhelming, ask them to describe the food.
“What color is this food?”
“This has a funny shape. What do you think it looks like?”
“Wow this food smells so good! Would you like to smell it?”
Encouraging kids to use their other senses, aside from taste, can be a helpful segue to eventually TRYING/TASTING it.
Brad: Our daughter is becoming more interested when I’m cooking food and asking what I’m doing, and if she can help. How can we involve our children in meal planning and preparation to help them become more open to trying new foods?
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Dahlia: Getting kids involved in the kitchen is great! They can help you cook, prepare foods, or even set the table! Any sort of involvement is beneficial. Here are some suggestions of food-related activities:
Make a grocery list
Shop for food
Put away groceries
Mix batter for pancakes
Arrange food on a plate
Scoop yogurt into a bowl
Wash the dishes
Brad: We try to give our daughter as much freedom as we can when it comes to eating - we remember as kids being forced and bribed to eat, for example, and so want to avoid that. However it’s hard to accept when she says her tummy’s full when we know she hasn’t eaten anything except snacks for the whole day. How can we balance our desire to let our children have autonomy with the need to ensure proper nutrition?
Dahlia: Autonomy and freedom can be so very nuanced when it comes to young children. It’s important to give it to them but within boundaries or structure set forth by parents.
Let’s talk about hunger and fullness first. It’s important that our kids know both feelings - what it’s like to be hungry and what it feels like to be full or satiated. If we let our kids graze on snacks all day they will not know what it’s like to be truly hungry or truly full. They also won’t have an appetite for set meals. This is where structure is important. Create set times for meals and snacks. Food is offered only during those intervals and in between the kitchen is closed. I think it’s important for parents to create the boundaries around when food is being offered.
If you have a child that is too familiar with grazing, it may take a few days or weeks for him/her to adjust to this new rhythm. In the long run, it will benefit your child to learn what it feels like to be hungry so he/she can respond appropriately. When he/she wants to eat, it will be because of an internal sense of hunger.
Teaching our kids to eat based on internal cues of hunger and fullness is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
Thanks so much to Dahlia for answering my questions - I genuinely learned so much that I wish I’d known the first time around the block. I’ll definitely be referring back to this again and again when it comes to introducing foods to our second child.
Dahlia has so much more good food and nutrition advice for parents over on- be sure to subscribe!
Let’s hear from you!
I hope this week’s issue has proved helpful for those parents reading with fussy eaters - I know from personal experience how stressful it can be, so this kind of insight is truly invaluable. What’s your favourite tip or piece of advice you’ve taken away from today’s issue? Let us know in the comments!
You may have noticed that this week’s issue was slightly later in the week than the usual Friday. Despite the impending birth of our second child, next week’s issue is already scheduled and will be back to the regular timeslot (look in awe at how organised I am).
Previously on Some Other Dad
You’ll be pleased to know that I have mentally recovered from the incident that I wrote about last week. But if you didn’t catch the tale of my latest spectacular parenting disaster, and how people-pleasing (and Kermit the Frog) played a role in it, check it out!